The Morality of Villain Writing

“Every villain is the hero in their own minds.”

I believe in writing villains that are shades of gray. I want the reader to empathize with the perspective of the villain, and choose the hero’s side anyway — to me that empathy adds depth to the story and makes the villain more realistic.

Moreover, I feel that in certain circumstances creating an entirely evil character is irresponsible. Here’s why:

With the various issues we have going on today, confining groups of people to a singular identity is, I believe, harmful. When a person has a characteristic beyond their control that society defines as ‘bad’, it is easy for others or the person themselves to interpret themselves as ‘bad,’ which easily moves into ‘worthless,’ and begins a path towards dehumanizing individuals or groups.

For example, “being fat is bad” quickly becomes “fat people are Bad” which becomes “fat people have no worth.” Replace the word ‘fat’ with any number of other descriptors and you have the beginnings of discrimination and dehumanization.

This becomes particularly interesting when we consider that lots of stories for children involve entirely good or evil characters. The Big Bad Wolf has ‘bad’ in his very name. The Wicked Witch of the West. Cruella de Vil (Cruel Devil). Evil Queen. Wicked Stepmother.

All of these characters are one-dimensional, defined by their desire to cause harm to the heroes. Which makes sense for children’s stories, but is something I dislike in stories for everyone else.

I don’t like telling readers that there are single-characteristic people out there. I don’t like defining our enemies as always Bad. Not that my little books are going to singlehandedly change global perception of humanity, but I want what my books say to be as honest as possible about the human condition.

I’m not unrealistically lofty. I understand that characters and plots often ‘say’ things the author doesn’t necessarily agree with. It can be hard to draw the line in determining what you believe to be true and moral vs. what you need to have in the story. And there are wonderful exceptions, naturally.

A good example of this is the villain in Neil Gaiman’s new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Much of Neil’s work has a very fairytale feel to it, and reworks commonly-known tropes and character types, bringing them together in new and interesting ways. I feel it’s acceptable (ha, look at me telling Neil Gaiman about whether his work is acceptable or not) for Neil’s villains to be Bad and some characters to be Good, because that’s the type of story he’s working with.

But so far my books aren’t that type of story. And thus every time I design a character, I want them to be gray instead of black and white, because humans are gray.

As an added bonus, I want my villain’s motivations to make perfect sense, and be something a reader might realistically choose for themselves, if they were in the villain’s shoes. It ups the stakes, I think. It makes the conflict more believable.

I’ve been thinking about villain motivations and the potential morality therein as I try and uncover the backstory for the main villain I’m working with in my new project, The Cobworld. Among the magical creatures living in the Cobworld, I’m very tempted to assign Good or Bad roles to them. It would make my job so much easier if I simply called the villain Bad because they are this type of creature, but I find myself very reluctant to do this.

What makes one magical creature desire to harm another? What makes someone want to ruin an entire kingdom?

My new friend Cat Scully offered a very interesting take on Bad creatures: what if the creature is aware of their Bad characteristics, and tries to fight them, or feels sorrow for what they’ve done, even as they enjoy doing it? She used the example of the werewolf; a creature that when in man form can feel regret for what he’s done as a soulless, instinct-driven wolf.

It reminded me of this little story I find myself thinking of more and more as I grow older and come to know more about humanity:

A scorpion asks a fox to take him over a river. The fox refuses, stating that if he were to carry the scorpion on his back, the scorpion would sting him.

“Why would I do that?” asks the scorpion. “If I stung you, then we’d both drown.”

“I guess you’re right,” says the fox, and proceeds to let the scorpion get on his back, and starts off swimming.

Half way across the river, the scorpion stings the fox.

“Why did you do that?” the fox asks as he begins to drown, poison coursing in his veins. “Don’t you know that now we’ll both die?”

“I can’t help it,” says the scorpion. “It’s just my nature.”

Sometimes I wonder if a person can be born Bad. Are our choices really choices, or part of some internal programming we don’t understand yet?

I have certainly been demoralized by the behavior of some individuals, especially when I know they know better, or we’ve discussed why doing that particular action is harmful. Yet I continue to believe we are a product of both nature and nurture, and that we can choose to transcend our natural instincts and inclinations, if we want to.

And so despite the lure of ‘remorseful Bad guy’, I am hesitant to embrace this concept. Again, I fear what this says about people’s nature, and that it might imply that some people are Bad and there’s no changing them, or that some people are Good and all of their choices are correct.

So I’ll continue to hunt for my backstory and sympathetic motivations for my new villain. But if I can’t find them I’m not going to let this story go unwritten. The very human struggles of my main character are too important to me, and seeing as we get the most screen time with her, perhaps that depth of humanity can make up for the shallowness in my villain. Perhaps.

What do you think about Bad characters? Do you think authors have a moral obligation to consider the implications of their villains?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.